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Dialogue Dont’s and Do’s

Dialogue in a novel is like acting in a film — you don’t notice when it’s done well, but you sure do when it’s done badly.

word use

And dialogue is crucial; readers may skip your description of a 10-course meal at the Countess’s chateau, but they will never skip dialogue, according to the king of dialogue, Elmore Leonard.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

The last three novels/manuscripts I’ve read have all made the cardinal error in dialogue of including characters’ names, thus:

Well, what do you think of that then Julian?”

“I don’t know Barry. How about you?

Clunky dialogue like that torpedoes a novel instantly. It comes from authors believing that dialogue is supposed to sound like real speech, or believing that their readers are so dim that they can’t figure out who’s talking to whom.

If there’s any confusion, have one of the characters do something, like scratch their nose or play with their pen. But leave their names out of the dialogue, please.

A similar, though less extreme, fault is over-tagging of dialogue, adding “he said”, “she said” to the end of each piece of dialogue. That clunks badly, too. On that subject, Elmore Leonard believes passionately that authors should never use any verb but “said” to tag dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled’, ‘gasped’, ‘cautioned’, ‘lied’.

And, he says, you should never embellish “said” with an adverb: “. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Dialogue is not meant to sound like normal speech; nor is it meant to be a vehicle for the author to stick their noses into the action.

A sure way to check if your dialogue is making the grade is to read it out loud to yourself. This hurts; even on your own it tends to be embarrassing.

But how much better to embarrass yourself in the confines of your garden shed, or wherever you compose your masterpieces, than to embarrass yourself in public when your clunky dialogue is published.

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Who’s a pretty boy, then?

One of my maxims is that bad writing draws attention to the author, and good writing draws attention to the content. The corollary is that writing which draws attention to the writer is bad; that which draws attention to the content, and where the hand of the author is invisible, is good.

Glen Baxter

This is not an original thought. Stephen King wrote that: “The object of fiction is ….to make the reader … forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.” Garrison Keillor talks about “keeping your fine sensibilities out of it.

Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

The more an author pushes themselves and their message forward in a story, the less effective the story, and the message become. This isn’t very different from real life; the harder you try to persuade someone that they’re wrong, the less convinced they are, and the harder you try to be funny, the less amused your audience is.

To my mind, there’s nothing that pulls a reader out of a story quicker than the author trying to muscle into the action, and saying: “Hey, readers. Look at me, how clever and amusing I am!”

This is very common in journalism and the media these days. If you have ever tuned into BBC World, for example, you are bound to run into the field reporter who says: “Next week, tune into Forgotten World with me, Droopy McFlaccid, when we’ll examine raffia basket-weaving amongst the Congo pygmies.

In truth, I don’t need to know the reporter’s name. But the tendency is to make the reporter bigger than the story. Much mainstream journalism is often opinion disguised as news.

In fiction writing, this is of crucial importance. Nobody is going to wade through 300 pages of wincing self-promotion by an author. Authors must absent themselves from their work, as Evelyn Waugh famously pointed out.

One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish-heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables.

Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments, polish them, set them in order, and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them. It is not merely a matter of filling up a dust-bin haphazard and emptying it in another place.

The Invisible Man

Richard Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type…his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.” – review of The Manchurian Candidate.

That seems to be the ideal stance for a satirist to adopt. Satire is fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, but if the satirist becomes too involved, and loses the ability to maintain a lofty perspective, then the satire deteriorates into simple rhetoric and even abuse.

As the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun observed: “The artist and the polemicist need to be separated if both are to thrive.

As an example, take the work of the American satirist Carl Hiaasen. His first solo novel, Tourist Season, published in 1986, was a comic treasure. He managed to keep the reader’s sympathies evenly divided between the dull, plodding hero and the flamboyant, larger-than-life antagonist (who also happened to be a mass murderer, in the service of ecology).

His second, Double Whammy, and his third, Skin Tight, were a little more black-and-white, baddies versus goodies, but still excellent fare. As was his fourth, Native Tongue, but there was a growing feeling that his characters were dividing into two camps — the corporate greedheads, who were vile in every aspect, and the valiant environmentalists, whose sex lives were as healthy as their ethics.

The harder that Hiaasen trumpeted the green message, the more obvious it became that he was pushing this barrow, and the less effective his satire became. The trend continued with Strip Tease (remember the awful Demi Moore/Burt Reynolds film?), Stormy Weather, Lucky You and Sick Puppy. You could spot the baddies a mile off, because not only were they anti-green, but their entire characters were vile, from personal habits to lack of intelligence.

Hiaasen seemed to realise this, after 15 years as a novelist, and changed the formula somewhat in 2002’s Basket Case, which dropped much of the polemic and reintroduced Hiaasen’s high-energy style. Sadly, he returned to type in Skinny Dip and to awful effect in the appropriately-named Nature Girl, which even his greatest fans couldn’t find many good words about.

Hiaasen has written 11 novels, and this isn’t one of the best 10,” an Amazon reviewer wrote.

In part, Hiaasen was a victim of his own success. When interviewed about his early work, he said: “The stakes are so low when you start — you’ve got nothing to lose — so you just cut loose and have fun.

Satire in fiction is the art of delivering a message without seeming to deliver one; the more the author’s hand is visible, the less effective the satire.

As Elmore Leonard said, he makes an “attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

The writer has to get out of the way and let their words do the talking.